LendingTree LLC has agreed to buy SurePoint Lending, a traditional mortgage originator based in Louisville, Ky., giving the online-focused company a branch network for the first time in its 12-year history.

LendingTree, whose core business is generating leads for sale to lenders, has had a direct lending operation since 2004, when it bought HomeLoanCenter.com, in Irvine, Calif., and renamed it LendingTree Loans. But it has always operated exclusively online and by phone.

SurePoint has four branches, one each in Louisville, Nashville, Tampa, and Indianapolis, and nearly 500 employees, including more than 300 loan officers. The outfit has purchased leads from LendingTree for 11 years and has originated more than $10 billion of loans since it was founded in 1995.

"This acquisition is a key component of our aggressive growth strategy for LendingTree Loans, which also includes expanding our team of loan officers headquartered in Irvine, Calif., increasing our marketing spend, and continuing to invest in process and technology to meet both regulatory requirements and our customers' needs," Doug Lebda, the chairman and chief executive of Tree.com Inc., LendingTree's parent company in Charlotte, said in a press release issued Tuesday.

LendingTree Loans agreed to pay $6 million in cash up front for SurePoint, with an additional contingent payment of up to $17 million more depending on earnings over the next three years. The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of 2011.

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